January has been quarantined. Recover?

Attack of the Twitter virus.  (Ah yes, from a good friend, who might actually have put me in his blog.)

Attack of the Virtumonde worm.

Attack of the some other crazy worm that actually took out my .DLL files and tied up my .explorer.

It wasn't a good month for me and PCs (Thanks to tictac.co.il)

It wasn't a good month for me and PCs (Thanks to tictac.co.il)

(If you’re thinking I spent a lot of time with Windows Forum, you’re correct.)

And then I had to have my computer wiped and re-built, twice.  By Linda, Goddess of IT.

Oh, and I traveled.  Went to a few social media poobah powows.  And got pneumonia.

Then I had to work like mad to get caught up.  Which I’m not, actually.

That’s where my January went.  Not to posting. Shame.

But I’m writing a post tonight (besides this one).  Can’t help myself.

It did occur to me, though — if an earthquake somehow descended upon my town like Vesuvius after Pompeii — it would confound archaeologists.  They’d say, “but this makes no sense.  Her time of death would appear to be the same as the earthquake: early February of 2009; but her pedicure dates back to at least mid-2008.  She must have either been very busy or not very organized.”

If I weren’t by then presumably a pile of ashes, I’d tell them that both would be true.

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How to Save a Life: Humanizing Technology

The call comes at 5:40 a.m.  “We had to start CPR.  Your dad’s heart is having ‘funny’ rhythms.”  The voice is kind.

And unconvincing. Isn’t CPR used for when a heart … stops?

By the time I get to the hospital, I hear that they had to do the whole scene familiar to millions from ER:  nurses on my dad’s chest counting, “1, 2, 3… 1, 2, 3!” and finally … the paddles and defibrillator:  “Clear!”

They bought him time.  But not much.

As if I could ever forget, it was an intense reminder that in medicine — as in technology — humanity makes all the difference.  

A quick story.

The cardiologist assigned to him in the hospital was clearly kind and very bright; I’ll call him Dr. Smaht.

Dr. Smaht explained to us that he would recommend an angioplasty for my father, despite his age; despite his other statistically complicating factors  — which he enumerated.

  • The statistical probability (by percentage) that he could die.
  • The statistical probability (by percentage) that he could need dialysis.
  • The statistical probability (by percentage) of a stroke.

Dr. Smaht concluded by saying, “obviously, there are risks, but it’s probably still worth it to at least do exploratory surgery — that’s an angiogram. Then if the contrast dye doesn’t send him into kidney failure, if it seems necessary, do an angioplasty as well.”  He waits, sure that the numbers will sway my father.  Percentages, to him, speak loudly.

But then, my father is hard of hearing.   So to speak.

My father inhales into  his oxygen tubes.  “I don’t even remember having a heart attack.”  He pauses, and looks Dr. Smaht  in the eye.  “I’m a newspaper guy.  I need a second source.  I want a second opinion.”

So I call my friend, Dr. Jay Reusch, cardiologist.  Married to my dear friend, Dr. Jane Reusch — one of the top endocrinologists in the country.

A few years ago, Jay Reusch helped my Dad deal with getting a pacemaker.  Last year, he was on the cover of Denver’s 5280 magazine*  (which for those of you who care, has been reinvigorated by former Red Herring and CMP poobah Luc Hatlestad, among others; it has blossomed in his tenure).

I gave Jay so much s**t about this.  I mean, every time I went to the grocery store, there was Jay gazing calmly at me.  I’d roll my eyes back at him.  And I know I wasn’t the only one.   We’re all thinking he’s on the cover because he’s sort of cute, and he’s a cardiologist.  AND he’s in a band (Dogs in the Yard — they’re good). 

Mea culpa.  I’m writing this post because the man saved my dad’s life.  Not just by being “a helluva cardiologist,” as my dad later called him;  but for being a good and confident enough doctor that he did not hide behind statistics. 

Where Dr. Smaht had painstakingly explained the numbers, the technical points, the statistical probabilities, Jay Reusch sat down like frickin’ Hawkeye Pierce and said:

 “Art.  If you hadn’t been in the hospital last night, you’d be dead.”

He took my Dad’s hand, waited until he had my Dad’s full attention and said loudly and calmly: 

“I’m sure you have questions.  I would too, and I’ll do my best to answer them.  Yes, there are risks.  But the benefits outweigh the risks.  I would have the surgery.”

He explained them, too.  In human terms.  My Dad said, “Well, you can’t ask for a better second opinion than that.  I’ll roll the dice.”

He came through the surgery very well.

It made me think about how often technology, designed as it is by engineers, focuses on what it does — not on why it matters. 

It is the first thing we tell our clients:  who cares besides you?  Why does this matter?  How can we put a human face on this technology?

Because if you can’t do that, you’re posing an intellectual answer to what may be a human problem. 

And that may leave the people who need you most… unwilling to roll the dice.

Thanks, Jay.

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O..M..G… They can’t be in our Social Media Club! Gosh!

A few weeks ago, I attended an event where Kara Swisher referred to the whole social media scene as the “social media self-reflecting echo chamber” and some of its stars as “assclowns.”

There was some uneasy chuckling at this — it was, after all, a panel called “Is Social Media Killing PR?”  But mostly people knew exactly what she meant.    There has been much, much sucking up and self-referencing going on lately.

I could have left it at that, until I read a post on an otherwise usually very thoughtful marketing/buzz blog.  It warned all you unsuspecting innocents out there how to tell if your Social Media Consultant is really a carpetbagger.

It carried a breezy video comment with a young pup smilingly declaiming that there are actually people who don’t know what the Cluetrain Manifesto is, and knowing what it is should be a test (I am actually quite fond of the Cluetrain Manifesto, in the nostalgic way some people might be of, say, Goodnight Moon or their first love; but some of my more acerbic peers refer to it as the Common Sense Manifesto).

You know, it was harmless.  Maybe they just were trying to be cute. He was contributing.  And yet the combined effect reminded me of an endless string of cliche movie scenes: the stepsisters make fun of Cinderella:

The Socs make fun of Ponyboy:

The Mean Girls… well, you get the idea.

Some of the insights were fine.  You should be wary of someone who doesn’t listen.  Or whose first suggestion is a Facebook group.

But as one Twitterer told me privately, “the tone [of that post] made me cringe.  It was so smug.”

Yah.  We’re smug — because we broke the code, and we got here first.  Or more first-ier, anyway.  We know things these noobs don’t know.   (insert comment calculated to suck up to Michael Arrington).

I have nothing against Michael Arrington.  He’s great at what he does.  In fact, leave him out of this.  It’s the whole wink-wink say-no-more, you can’t be in my club thing that has sprung up lately.

Sidebar-With-A-Point: You know who got me into Twitter?  @micah (Micah Baldwin) and the late @mochant (Marc Orchant).  Two incredibly different men; two very different approaches.  About a year ago, at deFrag.   Marc started telling me excitedly about Twitter after Gnomedex; it was a “breakthrough” for him.  Micah laid out his arguments for Twitter completely differently.  But clearly, simply.  Not once did he say, “you’re too old,” or, “you’re too new.”

Both guys were amazing that way.  Brilliant, kind, open — natural teachers who had been at the social media game for a while.  They were and are symbolic to me of what makes the open web succeed: you give people the information, explain why it’s useful, and see how they connect with it.

Micah could have given me, you know, that half-smile that kids reserve for people over 40 when they see them dance, when they’re embarrassed for them.

But instead he was just straight-up.  “No, Twitter’s really cool.  You should do it.  Here’s the value for me:….”   He laid it out, and he made sense.    I was on Twitter that afternoon.

Yeah, several months after he and others were on it.

Maybe it’s the economic downturn — in a recession, some people want to make just that much more sure that someone knows that we know what we’re doing and knew it FIRST before those  new people came in and started LIKING social media and trying to USE IT and making it all, you know, social and useful.

And yes, the blog post had a point — because there’s money to be made in brandishing phrases like “personal brand” and “social media consultant,”  it helps to have some insights.

But part of why I didn’t get on Twitter earlier was because of a guy who was in some ways the opposite of Micah and Marc.  A blogger/social media personality who trails little odorless puffs of hype behind him like the low-carbon Highlander Hybrid he started driving after he saw it on Project Runway.   He is smart, he gets ironically and mildly underexcited about everything, he blogs about everything, people love to say they know him, he claims to know everyone.

I suspected that for him Twitter was the solution to that old Eminem song:  “It feels so empty without me.”  That was how I saw it — microblogging a tech raven’s life as it flew from one shiny object to the next.  So since he was excited about Twitter two years ago, I felt forced to hate it, even though he didn’t know and wouldn’t care.

I was wrong about Twitter.  I avoided this cool thing, just because he was annoying.  (But haven’t you done that?   Maybe it was a book, like The Tipping Point or Tuesdays with Morrie, that you avoided just because people flocked to it in droves and formed well, Facebook Groups about it.   Or a movie that could not have possibly lived up to the hype.  Or even Ron Paul, or Barack Obama.

But you give in –  read the book or see the movie, or listen to Barack Obama talk.  You  concede that though the hype is annoying — well, there’s something there.)

The whole social media self-referencing echo chamber is getting annoying.  But there’s still something there of value for people that are willing to walk past the posted insults of the  Socs, or the whispered taunts of the Mean Girls, and make their own way towards the amazing resources to be found.

My husband works only tangentially with the tech world.  He’s starting to find the value in Twitter as a tool for conversations with customers he didn’t know he had — just the way the Cluetrain Manifesto would want him to — and he wouldn’t know how to find the manifesto if it bit him in the …a**clown.

So please let’s stop the code words, do our jobs, follow our curiousity and trust that it will sort itself out, for the most part without having to act like Closed Web Snobs.

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Filed under Ethics, Tech and hype, Technology and PR, Web 2.0

The Only Gifts of Cancer … or, don’t sweat the small stuff

Perspective Comes in Handy

Perspective Comes in Handy

Some of you may know I have been working — well, actually been putting off, thanks to a number of actual life happenings — on a book called “The Only Gifts of Cancer.”

How could cancer have gifts?

Truth is, it’s terrible and devastating, but there are a few gifts it can bring to your life.  I was reminded of one of them this week as I shuttled between a hospital for my father and a different hospital for my daughter.

That gift — from cancer, or from any life-threatening illness or trauma — is perspective.

  • Because it suddenly does not matter to me whether she gets her diploma in May or in July, or next year, as long as she is healthy, safe and happy.
  • Because I haven’t gotten on a scale in over a month and I realize it didn’t matter, it worked itself out.
  • Because most times it really was important for us to eat together as a family… but when we couldn’t, it was cool to see how everyone did fine.
  • Because there are times when it really is important to stay up to get a client’s work done: I promised, and it really could only be done by me; but there are times when it’s okay to ask someone else to jump in — because the work still has to be done, but my father may not live through the night.
  • Because it made my Dad feel better to know I was there, even if he didn’t always remember it.
  • The fourteen million acronyms in the self-reflecting social media universe will be there when I get back.  I can turn off my *&@! phone.

I have children who need me, and that’s a gift; I am someone’s child, and that’s a gift.

It has made it absurdly easy to make decisions.

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Thoughtful Pwns Cluelessness (When You’re Not Ready, Stay Home – Part II)

You wouldn’t think that anyone would have to write a post telling companies or PR people — or just about any person, really — to be thoughtful.  Or put another way, to at least not be stupid.

Unfortunately stupid is just how some people roll.

And as it happens, the rules for “don’t be stupid” (with apologies to Google) apply as well to regular life as they do to PR.  They’re spectacularly easy to avoid.

Here’s a quick (true) example.

Years ago, a client with a Very Big Company was planning a multi-country launch of a Big Deal Product…in early Autumn.  By big deal, I mean that they were planning to fly in a bunch of journalists, customers and analysts from across the globe. My colleagues at the time were in a tizzy, coordinating with other agencies who handled the Very Big Company’s business in other parts of the world.

There was drama.  There was excitement.

There was …just one problem, I realized as I looked at the calendar.

The launch date was on Yom Kippur.

I knew that several of this company’s key beat reporters were Jewish.  The reporter at BusinessWeek, at Dow-Jones, at the AP, just for starters.  I told my colleagues: “if our VeryBigCompany client has any sense at all, they will move the launch by one day.  Because I am sure that they want coverage from these reporters.  And I am equally sure that these reporters a) will not come; and b) may even be offended that our client was so insensitive as to have a Big Launch on a High Holy Day.”

I mean, they’re not called the low holy days, right?

My colleagues basically told me to pipe down.  They didn’t want to be the ones telling the Very Big Company that it had made a mistake.  Plus, they reasoned, it was too much trouble to change all the reservations and arrangements.

My take was, the whole point of the reservations and arrangements was to get coverage — and if they weren’t going to get at least some key coverage, then why make said reservations and arrangements?

I didn’t exactly pipe down — I think there’s a slip in a personnel file somewhere that says something like, “M. really got on my nerves about the Yom Kippur thing.”

When the launch came, a whole host of reporters didn’t show.  The client — who is now my friend — told me it went something like this:

Client:  “Where is everyone?”

Us: “Well, it’s Yom Kippur.”

Client:  “Did we know this?”

Us:  “Er, um…”

Client:  “Why would we go to all this trouble to have an event on a day when our key reporters cannot attend?”

Various Agencies:  “Er, um…”

So here’s my point.  There are simple and obvious things you can do to avoid looking or being stupid — in life or in PR.  This goes with my “If you’re not ready — stay home” post below.  So here’s my list:

  1. Check the calendar.  Avoid holidays, days when the markets are closed — days of significance to any of your stakeholders in fact.  Some of this is about sensitivity and image; some of it is simply pragmatic.  Take your pick, but either way — do your homework and don’t be stupid.  Check Earnings calendars, too.
  • This is equally true for life.  A relative who did her graduate work at the University of Tennessee was planning her wedding, and was surprised and pleased to find a picturesque little chapel on campus open on short notice — for just one Sunday afternoon in October. You can guess what happened — I love her for not knowing that it was the football-crazy Vols’ HOMECOMING WEEKEND and PEYTON MANNING’S DEBUT, but it is also true that we almost lost the minister because many roads into campus were either blocked off or backed up.  On the bright side, we had conversations like this:  “I know, we’re an hour late and we have the flower girl, but we’re stuck in traffic. Hey, they’re putting some kid named Peyton Manning in for Todd Helton!”
  • 2.  Speaking of homework: do it.  PR peeps could have avoided that whole ridiculous Chris Anderson blacklist thing (and no, I’m not on it) if people would just take a few minutes to read.  How hard is it to go to WIRED — or wherever — search on the topic you’re wanting to pitch — and see who’s writing about it?
  • Real life parallel:  a friend recently sent invites to a big party to Mr. and Mrs. Roberts — not realizing that Mr. Roberts had died some time back. A few questions and a little research would have prevented a painful and awkward moment.
  • 3.  Sampling = not just for Costco.  If you’re going to suggest a press person stake his or her reputation on a product or service you’re suggesting, make sure it does what you’ve promised.  Try it.  Look for flaws, anticipate questions.  This isn’t rocket science.  And if it doesn’t perform as advertised?  Tell your client that it may not work for the person with the million subscribers, either.  (See:  If it’s not ready? Stay Home, part one).
  • 4.  Don’t pitch a story you don’t believe in.  I learned a while back that a at least half of my clients want to be in the Wall Street Journal, preferably above the fold.  In print, if possible. (Never mind that online would take a reader to the website — but, lo!  That is a post for another time).

I have three choices.  I could laugh:  mbwahahaha.

Or I could tell them what it will take to get in the Wall Street Journal, or the New York Times, or TechCrunch, or ReadWriteWeb.

And I could also work really, really, REALLY hard to find an angle — a story, an intersection — that *they* can tell — and that I can tell.  Something true, and (this is harder) something that people not at my client’s company would care about.

Usually, I do all three – not necessarily in order.

Things have gone badly the few times in my career when I have not followed my own advice on this last caveat.  I was once browbeat by a client into phone-stalking a particular reporter at the WSJ.  I really didn’t want to call him, but the client was threatening pretty much life, limb, and a huge account if I didn’t.

You know what happened next.  The reporter was annoyed, disappointed in me, and basically told me he’d lost faith in me, that I was selling out, I knew better, and I shouldn’t call him anymore.  I lost a great relationship; and that particular client is no longer with his company, either.

That’s what I get for being stupid.

Now it’s your turn: what other rules should be on this list?

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Science Reports Invisibility Cloak Within Reach (But Not Within Sight, Duh)

A while back the journals Science and Nature co-reported that the Invisibility Cloak is within reach, according to — oh, 657 articles at last count.   You can read the actual article here if you’re so inclined.

Invisibility Cloak as demonstrated by Infinity Labs

Invisibility Cloak as demonstrated by Infinity Labs

And reading this, I realized it was time to pay tribute to my Uncle George Sutton.

Back to Uncle George in a moment.   About these invisibility cloaks…

At the risk of being a “me too” blogger — and let me state up front that I had to buy separate copies of the Harry Potter books so that we would not fight over them — can I just wonder aloud whether we would be so excited if we’d never had the term, “invisibility cloak” introduced into the recent popular lexicon in 64 languages?

Don’t get me wrong; I think this is way cool.  Scientifically speaking, it’s the sort of thing that should give us all goosebumps — the kind where you don’t know whether they’re good or bad.

(If you ever read H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man, you’ll know he imagined invisibility as a double-edged sword.)  But scientifically only, I’m astonished that scientists can now bend light and waves so that it renders something “invisible.”

Here’s the thing: we’re always doing this.  From the Flying Carpet in Ali Baba to the Phazer in Star Trek to the light saber in Star Wars.  Pick an iconic fantasy item, and someone will say, “we’re that much closer to it!”  And suckers like yours truly — and apparently 657 other people at last count — will write about it, share links about it, talk about it — because it doesn’t just capture the imagination… it captures the imagination in such a way that we’ve already got the picture in our heads.   Dramatic.  Poetic.  Astonishing.

Which brings me back, briefly I promise, to George P. Sutton.

You know those jokes, “you don’t have to be a rocket scientist?”  Well he is a rocket scientist.

And a bit of a fun-sucker, if the truth be told.  When I was six, one of my sisters and I visited him in Los Angeles.  He took us to Disneyland which was, for my six year-old self, something like what they say it is:  a dream come true.

Until my Uncle George, took me on the Matterhorn.  Speaking loudly and precisely (the better to be heard over the machinery), told me:  “This is achieved by very tightly engineered hydraulics.  And ball bearings!  You see, they exert pressure to lift the carts just so…:”

I listened.  It made no sense to me.  But suddenly I was no longer imagining myself zooming up the Matterhorn (where somehow, bizarrely, I would have a view of Flying Dumbos); no, I was on a Triumph of Modern Engineering.

I listened politely; I’m related to him.  Most people, I think, just want the illusion — that’s what they came for.  Whether it’s to Disneyland, or to a website — “Don’t bore me with the details, I just want to be one step closer to my invisibility cloak!” — they don’t necessarily want to know how to create; just to consume.

Which is why I must pay tribute to Uncle George.  Besides being a bit of a fun-sucker, he is also an exceptionally kind, witty, thoughtful human being — not to mention brilliant.   He is 86 and currently re-writing his book on rocket propulsion for the 18th time.

Put it this way.  Without the Uncle Georges of the world, there would be no Matterhorns.  And certainly no Invisibility Cloaks.

So maybe I didn’t get it as a six year-old, but I get it now.  Thanks, Uncle George.  For everything.

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How to Save Newspapers; or, lessons of the Giant Water Bug

How do I feel about the newspaper business these days?

I’m reminded of a scene in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, where the author Annie Dillard describes watching a frog that seemed fine, placidly sitting on a creek bank.  As she watches, and within seconds, he is “shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football.”  He contracts, as if all the air and fluid has just been let out of him, “like a kicked tent.”  In a moment there remains only a bag of skin floating on the water where before there had been a healthy being.

It’s an unforgettable image.

Dillard later discovers that the frog was the victim of a giant water bug, which paralyzes its victims from underneath, then sucks the lifeblood out of them — literally, blood, muscles, bone and tissue — and departs, leaving just a sack of skin.  She uses the incident to set the tone of the book, that there’s this wild interplay of prey and predator going on around us all the time, but we’re too busy and distracted to notice.

Sucking the life from traditional media?

Sucking the life from traditional media?

Newspapers… lifeblood being sucked out… you see where I’m going with this.

You might have noticed that your local paper is roughly the size of a Watchtower pamphlet (or a Home Depot circular, don’t want to offend anyone).

But if you wonder whom I might have cast as the water bug in this metaphor, I’ll spell it out for you: the i-n-t-e-r-n-e-t  s-e-a-r-c-h  e-n-g-i-n-e.

I’m not a hater, though.  I mean, here I am — linking away.

I am having a “wish I’d thought of that” moment — because in spite of all my personal worry and angst at seeing friends and colleagues laid off — I tweet about a website that tracks journalist layoffs, of all things — leave it to a journalist to put, elegantly and concisely, just what needs to be done.

To save newspapers.

And I don’t mean recycling.

I get a lot of news online.  But I get a lot of news offline, too.  And as I said below, there are things online journalists and bloggers can do unbelievably well — and some that, say, the New York Times does better than nearly anyone on the Planet.

Which doesn’t make it more pleasant to discover that Sergei Brin and Larry Page, founders of Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) could buy every newspaper in the U.S.A and still put away $12 billion for their next acquisitions.

What does that mean?  Well, do you want all your news to come from one place?  Do you want your news at all?  Because, someone has to write it.  And it would be good if that someone got paid, was trustworthy, or at least was trying to adhere to some code of ethics.

This crossed my mind when Tom Foremski of Silicon Valley Watcher last week put forth his own water-bug control idea.  He writes:

US newspapers didn’t realize GOOG is a media company until it was too late. Google was able to scrape its content virtually for free, from newspapers and other web sites, and sell advertising around that content. Newspapers spend huge amounts of money to create their content.

Newspapers, and other media companies, have allowed Google to commoditize content, and retain the value in the aggregation and distribution.

Yet the technology for aggregation and distribution is a commodity — content is not a commodity.

Newspapers and other media need to rally around their content and not let Google or any other search engine scrape it for free.

Or else, Foremski continues, “the media will be the next big bailout.  It’s too important to fail.”

Amen.

Of course, how to do that — make search engines pay for the content they scrape, while making it available to consumers?  What are your ideas?

Figure it out.  It’s got to be better than just waiting for the water bug to finish sucking out your guts.

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Filed under Media, Technology and PR, Uncategorized, Web 2.0